Desperate Teenage Lovedolls (1984)

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onehalfstar

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Ever encounter a movie so poorly made that you’re not quite sure it even qualifies as a real film? Over a year ago Britnee pressured me to take a couple shady-looking DVDs from the trunk of her car in a NASA parking lot in New Orleans East (true story) & I’m not quite sure that either one qualifies as a “real” film. I stil haven’t forced myself to suffer through whatever Da Hip Hop Witch is (though I plan to soon), but after much procrastination I finally dove into the bargain bin depths of Desperate Teenage Lovedolls. Having now actually watched the movie, I still remain unconvinced of its validity as a feature film. Recorded on super 8 cameras in the 80s California punk scene, the “movie” has the feeling of a goofball group of kids’ backyard home video. As soon as the animated heroin needle on the DVD menu & the horrendously dubbed dialogue of the first scene grace the screen, Desperate Teenage Lovedolls at best feels like a project the Troma kids started, but never bothered to complete. It’s an effortlessly punk production for sure, but it’s the kind of half-assed, sloppily drunk punk that registers as less than endearing.

With direct references to past virgins-in-peril melodramas like Valley of the Dolls, Desperate Teenage Lovedolls is a very straightforward story of two female teen punks navigating a male-dominated world of rock & roll stardom. In their pursuit of fame, the two protagonists find themselves homeless, drug addicted, thieving, and suffering the sexual advances of record label sleazeballs before their band (The Lovedolls, duh) finally hits it big time (in a little over a month). By the time they achieve fame, of course, it’s far too late & their lives are destroyed by heroin, gang violence, and looming murder charges. Since the “movie” can’t even muster up a full hour of running time, these plot points all whiz by at a pace that should benefit what is essentially a genre spoof comedy, but no attempts at humor even come close to landing, despite the charmingly amateur “actors” constantly stifling their girlish laughter. Here’s an example of a typical “joke”: a man in drag plays one of the teen’s pesky mothers, so the teen complains, “Mom, you’re such a drag.” The mother later comes back at her, “I’ve always tried to be a mother & a father to you.” Laughing yet? I couldn’t conjur up a chuckle either. And that’s not even to mention the way the “movie” casually mines homophobic slurs & sexual assault for “humor”. Throw in some pitifully slapped-together costumes & knife fights as well as some obviously uncleared tunes from names like Hendrix, Zepplin, and The Fab Four and you’re still left wondering at the end credits, “Is this a real movie?”

Here’s where I try to say some nice things about Desperate Teenage Lovedolls, whether or not it felt like a legitimate movie. If nothing else, it’s a great historical document of 80s California punks, particularly that of teenage girls. I know many a Tumblr that would salivate over the fashion on display. I also got one genuine laugh from the deadpan exchange “Thanks for killing my mom.” “No problem.” Although the “movie” was missing more outright humor in that vein, it did have the general feeling of kids having fun, just making a movie for kicks. I’m glad they had fun, but a lot of what made it to the screen has the distinct feeling of “highdeas”: things that were probably funny while the writers/performers were stoned, but didn’t hold up to later scrutiny. There’s no way that anyone could actually believe the blurb on the cover that claims Desperate Teenage Lovedolls “rates up there with John Waters’ finest early work” (at least I hope not; those are some of my favorite movies), but you can at least feel some of Waters’ style (as well as that of his early muse Russ Meyer’s) coursing through the film’s veins. I can also say this: the film has an incredible soundtrack, headlined by the big deal punk band Redd Kross, who proved its theme song: “Ballad of a Lovedoll” & a villainous performance from bassist Steve McDonald. Some of the “movie”’s best moments were montages that let the music breathe & the failed humor dissipate. It was also amusing to watch the girls pretend that the were playing Redd Kross’ songs, despite the male lead vocals. There were some other interesting incongruities, like a melodramatic drug freakout that relied on strobe lights & paused VHS tapes as well as the fact that the girls are supposed to be homeless, but still have a place to store & practice on their band equipment.

Still, none of this adds up much in terms of a completed product. Desperate Teenage Lovedolls still feels surreally fake to me, exactly like the kind of movie a friend who usually can stomach the worst media imaginable passes off to you in perplexed defeat. There are enough real movies out there that achieve what Desperate Teenage Lovedolls vaguely attempts (drugged out weirdos having fun being drugged out weirdos on film), ranging from John Waters’ Dreamlanders era all the way to this year’s wonderful Tangerine, that you needn’t bother with this half-assed mess, yet it still exists. It exists & it was well remembered enough to reach the DVD format two decades after its release. Even stranger, this supposed “movie” even spurned a sequel titled Lovedolls Superstar in 1986. That can’t possibly be true, but there it is, existing, being a real thing, even though I remain unconvinced.

-Brandon Ledet

Sinister (2012)

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three star

Horror is one of those genres where you honestly don’t have to try too, too hard to succeed. Yes, it’s of course preferable that any film would stand out as a unique property that breaks all expectations of its context & genre, but it’s never that big of a deal when a horror film shrugs off that kind of ambition. With its own set-in-stone tropes & built-in audience, horror allows a lot of breathing room for films to just sort of coast on the long line of work that came before them. Innovation isn’t entirely necessary for each individual horror picture as long as they deliver a few basic elements: suspense, some good scares, maybe a memorably creepy creature or two, etc. As long as they play by the rules, all a passably decent horror film really needs to do is not drop the ball. In a lot of ways, Sinister is such a film.

There’s nothing really too special about Sinister. Ethan Hawke plays a “true crime” journalist who moves into the house of a slaughtered family in order to research his new book, some kind of In Cold Blood derivative. Of course, the house is haunted. Of course, the project drives him mad. Of course, there’s a Boogieman-type demon helming the entire horrid affair. Well, the film actually takes that last part quite literally. Known to historians as Bughuul & to possessed, homicidal little demon children as “Mr. Boogie”, The Boogieman is a real character in the film, orchestrating all of the haunted goings on from the protective distance of some super 8 films mysteriously discovered in Hawke’s attic. It’s curious that, since he exists largely in the imaginations & drawings of little children, Mr. Boogie isn’t represented here as I would’ve drawn him in my youth (a man-sized booger in a trenchcoat) but instead appears as some sort of Industrial Goth enthusiast in corpse paint. No matter. Despite Bughuul’s prominence in Sinister‘s mythology, he’s entirely nonverbal and doesn’t do much besides makes some guest cameos in the haunted super 8 films to look all goth-like & mean. The children under his spell do most of the heavy lifting & are much more effective at producing some great onscreen scares.

The haunted super 8 films that drive Ethan Hawke’s true crime journalist mad depict The Boogie Man’s child army calmly, methodically executing their respective families for the benefit of home video in a variety of unsavory ways: drownings, fires, lawn mowers, etc. These films are where Sinister excels most as a unique property, almost functioning as an old-fashioned horror anthology. There’s a lot of visual care that goes into depicting the projection equipment that screens the films and in other minute details (such as throats being slit in the reflection of Hawke’s glasses as we’re watching him watch a projection) that’s otherwise missing from the film’s more run-of-the-mill haunted house & creepy children formula. During these screenings the film’s sound design also takes on a special importance (including a kickass soundtrack) , reaching for some deeply unnerving vibes that can’t be accomplished simply through gore makeup & jump scares. Sinister may take a while to build up its own mythology & its central Nine Inch Nails Superfan villain may be a little underwhelming, but its haunted films concept is satisfying enough to make for a decent horror picture once the ball is finally rolling. Besides, creepy, murderous children are always an easy sell for fans of the genre, which allows the film to more or less coast.

-Brandon Ledet